The Persistence of Political Violence in the Philippines after the Fall of the Marcos Dictatorship


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date26 Jan 2023


This dissertation examines political violence in the Philippines after the collapse of the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos and the restoration of electoral democracy in 1986. The persistence of political violence in the country contradicts expectations that violence will decline once democratic procedures are restored (Schwarzmantel 2010) and (Keane 2002). Democratic reforms in the Philippines – such as a new constitution with strong protection for civil liberties, a Party List sectoral representation system, the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law, and the diffusion of power through decentralization from national to the local levels – have failed to reduce political violence. On the contrary, old forms of political violence have escalated – specifically against communists and their supposed sympathizers, as well as between local warlords. At the same time, new forms of political violence have emerged, particularly extra-judicial killings of supposed drug dealers and users. This novel kind of political violence, ‘pioneered’ by former President Rodrigo R. Duterte when he was mayor of Davao in Mindanao, was introduced at the national level after his election as president in 2016. But these new forms of violence had long been normalized at the local level for decades. Though each of the forms of political violence is distinct, they are interconnected in terms of the political goals they aim to attain.

The three forms of political violence examined in this study are the political violence against the legal left, political violence by the local warlords, and political violence against supposed drug users and dealers. Political violence targeting the legal left intensified after their leaders joined the Party List sectoral elections. Post-Marcos presidents who confronted serious political and military challenges gave the armed forces the greatest leeway to target the legal left (accused of aiding and abetting the underground communist movement) to enhance their chances of political survival. The military, once given a ‘go signal’ by a president, began targeting individuals and groups associated with legal organizing efforts to weaken the social and political structures of the Left.

The second form is political violence by local warlords against their rivals. Gaining greater powers with the decentralization measures implemented in 1991, warlords intensified political violence against their enemies as local elections became more competitive and the stakes over access to state power and resources grew higher. Because national leaders are dependent on local votes to win elections, they often defended their warlord political allies even when the latter engaged in egregious violence. Thus, the symbiotic relationship between the national and local leaders in a competitive electoral system also shaped the nature of political violence after democracy was restored.

The third form of political violence – directed at supposed criminals and drug dealers – involves a more direct link between national and local political leaders. Former President Rodrigo Duterte, who never lost an election in Davao City with his promise to kill drug criminals, used this record of local political violence as a blueprint for his successful presidential campaign in 2016. When he became president, the nature of political violence at the national level also changed. Although Duterte, like several previous presidents, had apparently given the military free reign in killing human rights and political activists aligned with the legal left accused of supporting the communist insurgency, he has also had the Philippine National Police (PNP) actively target the purported drug criminals across the country, with thousands (with some reports claiming tens of thousands, already killed in his ongoing “war on drugs.”

A common aspect of these three forms of political violence is, perpetrators get away with murder or punishment for wrongdoing. This study shows that once powerful political actors are involved – the military, police, local warlords and political allies of the president – constitutional protection for human rights is undermined. In this context, impunity can neither be simply understood as a problem of law enforcement or a weak criminal justice system. Impunity exists precisely because it is a design and a precondition for political actors in attaining their social and political goals. Bolstered by impunity, political violence becomes the norm in political contestations, resulting in a resurgence and escalation of the old forms of political violence and the emergence of new forms.

As this study attempts to show, political violence has fulfilled the objectives of political leaders at both the national and local levels after the fall of Marcos. This demonstrates that political violence in the Philippines has become an integral part of the “democratic” politics, particularly competitive elections, and cannot be separated from it. The expansion of political participation, has led to the increase in political violence directed against the legal left by the military, against political rivals by the warlords, and against supposed drug criminals by Duterte as he promised earlier during his successful campaigns for mayoral races, and then in the campaign trail for the presidency. Thus, Philippine case shows that democracy is not necessarily synonymous with a more peaceful politics.